This is a horrifying book. Not because it’s a bad book – on the contrary, Cary Nelson has written a very good book: clear, judicious, and exemplary in its concern for reason and evidence. But these strengths of clarity and methodological scrupulousness actually increase the extent to which it’s horrifying, because its subject matter is a situation in which these virtues would be entirely appropriate but are spectacularly absent.
The book has two principal themes, and it is highly disturbing on both counts. The first theme is the nature of the current hostility to Israel and its supporters in the American academic milieu, and in particular the nature of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) project which is a principal vector of this hostility. The second theme is the degradation of intellectual standards in parts of the academy which strongly support BDS, and the readiness to prioritise anti-Zionist political goals over academic ones in research and teaching. In fact, it isn’t only academic goals which are treated as secondary: so also are other moral values which might reasonably be thought to be of general importance both inside and outside the academy, such as truthfulness and fairness and the rejection of racist tropes and modes of thought.
Nelson’s investigation reveals that in parts of the academy, which include some major American universities, there exists a quite extraordinary degree of hatred of Israel, resting on a view of it as engaged in well-nigh unrelieved evil. The presentation of this view is very frequently evidence-free; further, it involves a large number of direct falsehoods, at least some of which must be known to their proponents to be untrue – that is, to be lies – since fairly simple and straightforward research readily reveals this. And these lies are not trivial: they involve the charge against Israel of nightmarish crimes, which are then used to legitimate the judgement of the Jewish state as utterly inhumane. Such lies, for those who believe them, are bound to generate hatred towards the supposed perpetrators and their supporters, a large proportion of whom will of course be Jews. Hatred of Jews on unfounded grounds is not a frivolous matter, and we might reasonably expect academics, along with the rest of us, to know this.
The book is divided into four main parts: detailed analyses of the work of individual BDS proponents in the academy; more general discussion of the impact of BDS projects on research and teaching; consideration of the issue of academic freedom in both Israeli and Palestinian universities; and suggestions about how more constructive approaches to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians might be developed, ones which could actually be of some help to Palestinians, as BDS so signally is not. (Treatment of this last topic is distributed throughout the other parts of the book.) The individuals on whose writings Nelson principally focusses are Judith Butler, Stephen Salaita, Saree Makdisi and Jasbir Puar, with some discussion of Joseph Massad and others in the sections on teaching and BDS activism. Nelson is meticulous in his treatment of their work, both with respect to the quality of their reasoning and to the nature of the evidence (if any) for their claims against Israel. It would be impossible in a short book review (or even a long one, for that matter) to give a full account of the overheated, almost hallucinatory, atmosphere of these academics’ discourse about Israel, but here are some highlights: Butler claims, in the teeth of the evidence, that because of their long diasporic history Jews neither want nor need a state of their own; Zionism makes them particularly unpleasant nationalists who can only be redeemed by forgoing their nationalism and accepting minority status; however Palestinians, also diasporic, need and deserve their own nation-state. Stephen Salaita claims that Zionism is racism, and that it has transformed antisemitism from something horrible into something honourable. He asserts that Israel is an apartheid state, in which Arabs have no human rights; Israel’s soul is dead, and it needed to die if other peoples of the Near East are to continue living; Zionism is destructive for humanity. Saree Makdisi claims that Israel operates an ‘apartheid regime’ which is in fact worse than South Africa’s was – black South Africans were simply treated as inferior, whereas Palestinians are actually dehumanised. This is, in Makdisi’s eyes, the difference between exploitation and annihilation.
Jasbir Puar’s claims are perhaps the most extreme and vitriolic of them all; they also display a methodological inadequacy so profound that it amounts to a corruption of academic standards. She says, without evidence, that Israel has a policy of deliberately maiming Palestinians, that Israel lusts after visibly disabled Palestinian bodies, although it is also driven by the economic motive of profiting from the services it must provide for the disabled. Israeli refusal to kill Palestinians is apparently an act of dehumanisation: in Israeli eyes ‘the Palestinians are not even human enough for death’ (quoted by Nelson on p.228). She alleges further that Israel deliberately stunts Palestinian children by withholding food from them, notwithstanding the complete lack of evidence for, and the readily available evidence against, the existence of such a policy. Indeed there is so much evidence against Puar’s claims that it’s very hard to believe that they arise out of ignorance rather than malice. (Matters are not helped by the astonishing opacity and imprecision of her prose.)
The lip-licking relish with which these various claims are made, and the hyperbolic quality of their inventiveness, are in themselves disturbing – there is something almost pornographic in this ratcheting-up of the opportunities for hatred. But there is also the question of the academic standing of the kind of research displayed in such writings. As Nelson suggests, Salaita’s work reveals a lack of disinterested reasoning, an absence of discussion of conflicting arguments and how they might be supported or rebutted, and a failure to refrain from making unsupported assertions. But these missing characteristics are the standard features of academic research, and their absence erodes its claim on our attention. Puar’s work ignores the empirical studies which contradict her claims, and her methodology appears more like free association rather than anything resembling consistent reasoning. She and many others seem to regard the intensity and felt righteousness of their accusations as guarantors of their truth. But the long history of human hatred shows us that this particular guarantee is virtually worthless in the absence of supporting reasons and evidence, which is why these features are ones we particularly look for in academic work.
All this very pressingly raises the further question of the quality of the work done, or omitted, by the editors and publishing houses where Puar and others have brought out their writings. There seems to have been remarkably little of the standard fact-checking, requests for supporting evidence, and demands for an adequate treatment of conflicting evidence, which an academic editorial process would normally be expected to provide. Editors should also have been insisting on academic prose which can express, and can be assessed in the light of, serious intellectual effort and commitment. Nelson suggests that Puar’s work, and that of other academics considered in this book who share her political commitments, has been judged and edited on political rather than academic grounds, and it’s hard to disagree with him. At a time when serial lying and fake news (and fake charges of fake news) are undermining commitment to the political institutions that underpin our democracy, we don’t need academics to conduct their research in ways which would increase and indeed justify people’s suspicion and mistrust of any supposed expertise.
Nelson is a supporter of the two-state solution in the Middle East, and of Palestinian statehood, and he’s a strong defender of academic freedom. He asserts repeatedly that these academics have the right to say whatever they wish in their research. But as he points out, academic freedom also means that the rest of us have the right, and often the duty, to criticise these academics for their flaws of reasoning and methodology, and where appropriate their outright and venomous lies about the Jewish state. If even half of what Nelson says is true, then the state of scholarship in some parts of those universities and disciplines in the grip of anti-Zionist hostility must be regarded as seriously damaged and indeed intellectually corrupt. The textual evidence which Nelson reveals does, unfortunately, provide reason to think that far more than half of his comments are indeed true.
As Nelson points out, since the unrelenting rage against Israel is not warranted by the facts, and is not displayed towards other polities far worse than Israel, the most plausible explanation of it will have to make some appeal to the presence of antisemitism. Nelson is commendably careful not to try to look into the souls of the academics concerned – here as elsewhere, what warrants the attribution of antisemitism are the peculiarly selective, misleading, and sometimes entirely dishonest charges which these writers levy against the Jewish state, and the recurrence in their work of some very traditional antisemitic tropes – for example Jewish bloodthirstiness, mendacity and sinister power. This raises the difficult question of why antisemitism should be resurgent in these parts of the universities, though it isn’t, of course, confined to the academy, or for that matter to the Left. But the BDS project is a phenomenon of the Left, which is disproportionately represented in the humanities and the soft sciences, and there is already a considerable literature on the rise of antisemitism in parts of the Left. Explanatory appeal is made to various factors: the history of left-wing antisemitism in the USSR, for which some on the current Left retain a nostalgic fondness; the special hostility towards Western imperialism and colonialism, which the foundation of Israel is (most implausibly) thought to be a part of; the fact that some on the Left think of Jews as possessing white privilege, which makes them inappropriate objects of political sympathy and support. (All of these putative reasons for singling out the Jewish state and its supporters for special virulent hostility are, as Nelson and others from various parts of the Left have pointed out, deeply flawed. See seminal texts by David Hirsh,  Norman Geras,  Alan Johnson,  Dave Rich,  Robert Fine and Philip Spencer,  and many others.) No doubt these factors, and several more, have provided a strong push towards the growth of antisemitism on the Left. However we should also recognise the presence of powerful pull factors, those less political and more nakedly psychological motivations which also foster the development of antisemitism. They include in particular the pleasures of hatred, perhaps given special licence by the push factors mentioned above, and strengthened by a powerful though misplaced sense of moral superiority. Both in the textual material which Nelson provides and in the behaviour on campus of some of the acolytes of the BDS project we can see a deep enjoyment of hatred and contempt in the playing out of an old and sinister prejudice.
Nelson is not at the moment very optimistic about an easy reform of these deep flaws in parts of the academy, or about a defeat of the BDS project any time soon; and he is probably right. Here as elsewhere in our currently troubled political milieu, what’s most worrying is not so much the failure of reasoning, intellectual integrity and good will in the principal agents as the uncritical receptivity of their peers and followers, including their publishers and promoters, and those who provide enthusiastic audiences for their propaganda. We should not overlook the fact that academics and their facilitators are as prone as anyone else to the vices of political hatred, scapegoating, and racism, especially when they can be lightly but speciously disguised as progressive politics. The attack on Israel’s right to exist seems in the American academy to be inextricably bound up with the erosion of basic academic principles; we do right to be horrified by this deadly combination. So the defence of the Jewish state now involves the defence of academic values too, and those who care about either owe a considerable debt to Nelson’s demonstration of the moral and intellectual quicksand on which the BDS project has so determinedly pitched its tent.
 Hirsh, David 2018, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, Abingdon: Routledge
 Geras, Norman Spring 2013, ‘Alibi Antisemitism’, Fathom
 A. Johnson, ‘Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party‘, Fathom Report, March 2019
 Rich, Dave 2018 , The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn. Israel, and Antisemitism (updated edition), London: Biteback Publishing Ltd.
 Fine, Robert and Philip Spencer 2017, Antisemitism and the Left: the Return of the Jewish Question, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017